The classic restaurant Merriman's showcases local ingredients. // © 2014 Charla Photography
Feature image (above): Huggo's, a Kona mainstay, serves fresh seafood to a dedicated following. // © 2014 Huggo's/Toby Hoogs
Whenever I ask locals to name their favorite classic restaurants on Hawaii, the Big Island, my own list grows longer. That’s because the destination’s dining scene is as vast as its landscape, attractions and activities.
Guidelines help in the restaurant selection process. For me, a classic should be at least 15 years old and appeal to visitors and residents alike. Even then, however, my roster of must-try Big Island eateries is lengthy and varied.
After many meals and much consideration, I have pared down my suggestions to the following 10 spots. They represent a cross-section of enduring settings and menus on the appetizing Big Island.
Bamboo Restaurant and Gallery
Nostalgia reigns in this restored 1915 North Kohala plantation building with its wooden floors and bamboo screens. Regulars endorse Pacific Rim recipes such as Thai coconut prawns with papaya salsa. The mood is further enhanced by lilikoi (passion fruit) margaritas and live weekend music. Its gallery sells a range of souvenirs — even Hawaiian boxer shorts.
The harbor town of Kawaihae isn’t much to talk about, but the food at this 1988 landmark sure is. Creative island cuisine includes Asian/Pacific crab cakes and wood-fired pizzas with tomatoes grown in the Big Island. Its sister restaurant in Hilo, open since 1992, mirrors the dedication to local ingredients. Try the risotto with right-off-the-hook seafood.
Hawaiian Style Cafe
Big servings of local fare await at this homespun and cash-only spot, located in Waimea since the early 1990s. Its fluffy pancakes are so large they barely fit on the plate, and the beef stew has fat, tender chunks of meat. For a different spin on Hawaii’s loco moco, order the “Mok-a-Saurus”: chicken cutlet, Spam, hamburger patty, Kalua pork, eggs and gravy on fried rice.
808-885-4295 (no website)
Launched in 1969, this open-air Kailua-Kona classic sits so close to the water that you could practically cast your fishing line out the window. It’s aptly known for fresh seafood like grilled mahi mahi and Kailua Bay cioppino. Equally popular: pastas made in-house and a signature teriyaki flank steak. Nightly live local music adds to the sense of place.
A 1938 YMCA camp building has evolved into this warm hub in the chilly volcano highlands. A welcoming fireplace and hardwood floors set a cozy tone for modern takes on traditional European dishes. It’s likely the only dining room on the island serving hasenpfeffer — braised rabbit in wine sauce — and German sausages with sauerkraut.
This 1917 no-frills homestead relaxes in the upcountry town of Captain Cook. Formica tables, old-time photos and cheap prices create a retro mood. Locals swear by its legendary pan-fried pork chops. Not a meat-eater? Try the fresh fish, from ahi and mahi mahi to ono and opelu. Entrees come with rice and three tasty side dishes.
Peter Merriman’s original eatery, in Waimea since 1988, demonstrates his trailblazing devotion to area ingredients and the people who harvest them. Fresh fish, grass-fed meats and island-grown produce turn into delicacies such as Kahua Ranch lamb and wok-charred ahi. With white tablecloths and buttery walls, it’s upscale but worth the splurge.
Roy’s Waikoloa Bar and Grill
Part of the chain of Roy Yamaguchi gems, this restaurant opened in 1996 in the Kings’ Shops. The chef showcases local ingredients in such Euro-Asian dishes as macadamia Hawaiian monchong, blackened ahi with spicy soy mustard and Waikoloa roast duck. With its refined resort setting, Roy’s Waikoloa Bar and Grill is perfect for a special — albeit expensive — night out.
Seaside Restaurant and Aqua Farm
This Hilo tradition dates back to 1921. For decades, the Nakagawa clan has tended to its 30-acre natural fishpond, which is in view from the dining room. The pond is the source of specialties such as fried aholehole (flagtail) and steamed mullet. Seafood entrees feature salmon, butterfish, lobster and prawns. Also notable: prime rib and pan-seared duck.
What this family-run diner lacks in ambience, it makes up for in quality Japanese/American food. Open since 1929 in south Kona, it draws fans in with fresh sashimi, chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura and combination meals with miso soup, rice and tsukemono (pickled vegetables). It’s well worth a visit to this classic Big Island restaurant.
808-322-9140 (no website)